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Open Data Day 2013 in Vancouver

Better late than never, I’m going to do a few posts this week recapping a number of ideas and thoughts from Open Data Day 2013. As is most appropriate, I’m going to start the week with a recap of Vancouver – the Open Data Day event I attended and helped organize along with my friend Luke Closs and the very helpful and supportive staff at the City of Vancouver – in particular Linda Low and Kevin Bowers. I’ve got further thoughts about the day in general, its impact and some other ideas I’ll share in subsequent posts.

Vancouver! 2013!

What made Open Data Day in Vancouver great for me was that we had a range of things happen that really balanced time between “creating” (e.g. hacking) and engagement. As a result I’m diving this blog post into three parts: setting the scene, engagement and outcomes as well as sharing some lessons and best practices. My hope is that the post will make for fun reading for regular readers, but the lessons will prove helpful to future open data day organizers and/or plain old hackathon organizers.

Setting the scene

City hall photo by Roland

Despite competing with a somewhat rare sunny day in Vancouver at this time of year we had over 80 participants show up at City Hall, who graciously agreed to host the room. Backgrounds varied – we had environmentalists, college and university students, GIS types, open street mappers, journalists, statisticians among others. In addition, the city’s administration made a big commitment to be on hand. Over 20 staff were present, including one of the Deputy City Managers and a councillor – Andrea Reimer – who has been most active and supportive on the Open Data file. In addition we had a surprise guest – Federal Minister Tony Clement, who is the minister responsible for Open Data with the national government.

Our event was fairly loosely organized. We had a general agenda but didn’t over script anything. While Luke and I are comfortable with relatively flexible agenda for the day, we knew the unstructured nature of the event was a departure for some from the city and were grateful that they trusted us both with the format and with the fast, loose and informal way we sought to run the day.

Here are some high level lessons:

  • When Possible host it Somewhere Meaningful. City Hall is always nice. Many attendees will have never engaged with local government before, this creates a space for them to learn and care about municipal government. It also reaffirms the broader culture changing and social/change oriented goals of an open data hackathon. Besides, who isn’t welcome at City Hall? It sets a great tone about who can come – which is pretty much anyone.
  • Give the Politicians Some Room. Don’t be afraid to celebrate politicians and leaders who have championed the cause. Hackathons are about experimenting, not talking, so Andrea’s five minute talk at the beginning was the right mix of sincere engagement, enthusiasm and length.
  • Don’t Only Attract Software Developers. Vancouver’s event was in part a success because of the diversity of participants. As you’ll see below, there are stories that emerged because we tried hard to engage non-software developers as well.
  • Transit. This may sound obvious but… if you want to attract lots of people make it convenient to get to. We right off the subway line – City Hall is pretty central.
  • RSVP. We did one thing wrong and one thing right. On the wrong side, we should have allowed more people to register recognizing that not everyone would show. We’d turned people away and ended up having room for them because of the no shows. On the right side, we blasted our list to see if anyone wasn’t going to come at the last minute and, got some responses, which allowed us to re-allocate those seats.

Engagement: Open Dataing

Speed Dating with Minister Clement

The one thing both Luke and I were committed to doing was getting participants and city staff to talk to one another. Building off an idea Luke witnessed in Ottawa we did 45 minutes of Open “Dataing.” During this period city staff from about eight different departments, as well as Minister Clement, staked out a part of the room. We then had people cluster – in groups of about 5-7 – around a department whose data or mission was of interest to them. They then had 10 minutes to learn about what data was available, ask questions about data they’d like, projects they were thinking of working on, or learn more about the operations of the city. In essence, they got to have a 10 minute speed date on data with a city official.

After 10 minutes blew a whistle and people went and clustered around a new official and did it all over again.  It was a blast.

Key Lessons:

  • Open Dataing is about getting everyone engaged. Helping public servants see what citizens are interested in and how they can see technology working for them, it’s also about getting participants to learn about what is available, what’s possible, and what are some of the real constraints faced by city staff
  • I wish we’d had signs for the various departments being represented, would have made it easier for people to find and gravitate towards the issues that mattered most to them.
  • This type of activity is great early on, it’s a way to get people talking and sharing ideas. In addition, we did the whole thing standing, that way no one could get too comfortable and it ensure that things kept flowing.

Outcomes

After the dating, we did a brief run through of projects people wanted to work on and basically stepped back and hacked. So what got worked on? There were other projects that were worked on, but here are the ones that saw presentations at the end of the day. There are some real gems.

Bike Parking App 

The Bike Rack app came out of some challenges about data gathering that Councillor Reimer shared with me. I suggested the project and a team of students from UBC’s Magic Lab turned it into something real.

The city recently released a data set of the locations of all city owned bike racks. However, the city has little data about if these locations are useful. So the app that got hacked is very simple. When you arrive at your destination on bike you load it up and it searches for the nearest bike rack. For the user, this can be helpful. However, the app would also track that lat/long of where the search was conducted. This would let city planners know where people are when looking for bike rack so they would start to have some data about underserved locations. Very helpful. In addition, the app could have a crowdsourced function for marking the location of private bike racks (managed by businesses) as well as an option to lat/long where and when your bike was stolen. All this data could be used to help promote cycling, as well as help the city serve cyclists more effectively.

Homelessness Dashboard

Luke showing off his rental dashboard

My friend Luke connected a Raspberry Pi device to one of the giant TVs in the room where we were working to share the work he had done to create a dashboard based on the city’s rental standards database.  Luke’s work even got featured on the Atlantic’s website.

Crime mapping – lots of quality questions

One great project involved no software at all. We had some real data crunchers in attendance and they started diving into the Vancouver Police Department’s data with a critical eye. I wish the VPD could have been there since their conclusions were not pretty. The truth is, the Vancouver Police department makes very little data open, and what it does make, is not very good. What was great to see were some very experienced statisticians explain why. I hope to be able to share the deck they created.

Air quality egg

A few weeks prior to Open Data Day I shared that I’d be launching a project – with the help of the Centre for Digital Media – around measuring air quality in Vancouver. Well, the air quality egg we’d ordered arrived and our team started exploring what it would, and might not, allow us to do. The results were very exciting. Open Data Day basically gave us time to determine that the technical hurdles we were worried about are surmountable – so we will be moving forward.

Over the coming months we’ll be crafting a website that uses Air Quality Eggs to measure the air quality in various neighborhoods in Vancouver. We have a number of other community partners that are hoping on board. By Clean Air Day  we’d love to have 50-100 air quality eggs scattered across various neighborhoods in greater Vancouver. If you are interested in sponsoring one (they are about $150) please contact me.

Youth Oriented events RSS feed

One intrepid participant, also not a developer, got the city to agree to create and share an RSS feed of youth oriented events. This was important to them as they were concerned with youth issues – so a great example of a community organizer getting a data resource from the city. Next steps – trying to get other organizations with youth organized events to agree to share their program data in a similar data schema. What a great project.

Provincial Crowdsourced Road Kills and Poaching Maps

I was very excited to have to participants from the David Suzuki Foundation at the hackathon. They worked on creating some maps that would allow people to crowdsource map road kills, and instances of poaching, across the province of British Columbia. I love that they had a chance to explore the technical side of this problem, particularly as they may be well placed to resolve the community building side that would be essential to making a project like this a success.

Neighbourhood quality Heat Maps

Another team took various data sets from the Vancouver Open Data portal to generate heat maps of data quality (proximity to certain services and other variables). This prompted a robust conversation about the methodologies used to assess quality as well as how to account for services vs. population density. Exactly the types of conversations we want to foster!

Figuring our how to translate all of the data.vancouver.ca datasets

Another participant  Jim DeLaHunt - put in some infrastructure that would make it easier to translate Vancouver’s open data into multiple languages in order to make it more accessible. He spent the day trying to identify what data in which data sets was structured versus unstructured human readable text. And… much to his credit he created a wiki page, the  Vancouver Open Data language census to update people on his work so far.

Live Bus Data Mapped

Transit mapping

Another team played with the local transit authority’s real time bus data location API. It was pretty cool to see the dots moving across a google map in real time.

Their goals were mostly just to experiment, play and learn, but I know that apps like this have been sold into coffee shops in Boston, where they let customers know how far away the next bus.

Open Street Map

A Open Street Mapper participant spent the data getting address data merged with OSM.

Key Lessons:

  • Don’t try to over manage the event – give people space and time to create
  • Even if the energy feels low after a long day – definitely share out what people worked on, even if they didn’t finish what they wanted. There is lots to be learned from what others are doing and many new ideas get generated. It was also great for city staff to see what is possible
  • Get people to share github repos and other links while on site. Too many of the above projects lack links!

Thank you again for everyone who made Open Data Day in Vancouver a success! Looking forward to next year!

Three Ways Anyone Can Contribute to Open Data Day

With well over 90 cities now scheduled to partake in Open Data Day and with several events expecting 50+ and even 100+ participants I wanted to outline some thoughts to help people who are thinking about participating but not sure what to expect or if they have anything helpful to offer.

First things first.

You can help. You have something to offer.

Second. You are not alone. Many people are not sure what to expect nor what they will do. If you come with a sense of play, curiosity and a willingness to work with others, you will find something interesting to do. And, of course, you will have amazing local organizer who, from what I’ve seen on the wiki and the web, have worked very hard to find a great venue, put together great agendas and reach out to other great people at the event you’ll be attending.

So here are two things even someone who knows next to nothing can do and five projects to consider exploring:

1. Mock Up Your Idea

Not everyone can code. I can’t code! But coding is only one part of a series of activities that can lead to an interesting project. The first… is thinking of an interesting project.

If you have an idea, one of the simplest and best things you can do is “spec” the idea out. Open up Keynote, Powerpoint, or Google Present and create a fake “screenshot” of what you think your app should look like, describe what it would do, and outline why someone would use it. This is probably the simplest most straightforward thing you can do and the most helpful to get others to undestand and want to be part of your idea. I’ve done this a few times, and on several occasions, developers have taken the idea and created it!

The most important thing is to create something. That way others can read about it, build on it or critique/improve it. If you don’t create something, it can’t grow!

You can see an example here where I used keynote to edit a website to add a feature I thought it needed! (plus a whole blog post describing it)

2. Be an Astronaut. Document what you do.

During a recent hackathon I gave an opening address where I urged participants to “be an astronaut.” Not because astronauts are cool (they are). But because of the ultimate (somewhat depressing) responsibility astronauts have – they document and share everything they do so that the next person doesn’t suffer the same fate as them if anything goes wrong.

Hackathons are an effort to create a fun environment to encourage experimentation and foster learning, but that doesn’t mean people have to leanr the same lesson over and over again.

One of the most helpful thing I’ve seen people do during a hackathon is keep a running blog of what the developers were doing. They documented the steps they took, the ideas they researched and the scripts/libraries/etc… they used.

If the project was interesting, these “documentaries” can be helpful to get others involved. If the project is a disaster then, like an astronaut, your piece can be a warning to others so they don’t repeat your mistakes and try alternatives. Even a failure can inspire others to try something that ends up working. Indeed, that is how a lot of innovation takes place.

3. Identify some data worth scraping or share a new data set

While I love open data, there remains a lot of juicy, good government data that is, well… not open. So locating a juicy data set that you think could help shed new perspectives on a problem or help people take action is itself quite valuable. For example, I’m hoping to find a way to “scrape” (e.g. create a re-usable copy) of the City of Vancouver’s budget as well as the provincial budget.

But we don’t have to just focus on governments. I love the call to action in Oakland for its Open Data Day where they are asking non-profits:

“Do you work for or run an Oakland based nonprofit organization? Do you have data problems? Do you have data needs? Because if you do, we can help!”

I’ve always wanted to find ways to get non-profits involved in open data and just thinking about data analysis, so love that open data day can be a vehicle for this.

 

International #OpenDataDay: Now at 90 Cities (and… the White House)

Okay. We are 10 days away from International Open Data Day this February 23rd, 2013. There is now so much going on, I’ve been excited to see the different projects people are working on. Indeed there is so much happening, I thought I’d share just a tiny fraction of it in a little blog post to highlight the variety.

Again if you haven’t yet – please do see if there is an event near you and let the organizer know you are keen to come participate! As you see if you read below, this event is for everyone.

And if you are going – be sure to thank your local organizer. With roughly 90 or more events now scheduled world wide this is and remains a locally organized event. It is the organizers on the ground, who book the rooms, rally people and think of projects that make this day magical.

The White House joins International Open Data Day

Yes. You read that right. As you can read read here:

“We’re inviting a small group to join us in Washington, DC on February 22, 2013 for the White House Open Data Day Hackathon”

So if you are in the US and interested in participating, get on over to their website and apply. How cool would it be to hack on data at he White House?

More Organization Release Data in Anticipation of Open Data Day

One of the by products of open data day that we’ve been particularly happy about has been the reaction of governments and other organizations to release data in anticipation of the day to give developers, designers, data crunchers and every day citizens a new data set to play with.

Yesterday the  Building Performance Institute Europe (BPIE), a European not-for-profit think-do-tank made its online knowledge assets “open data ready” by launching an open data portal with facts and figures related to buildings and with a particular focus on the delivery of energy efficiency retrofits to existing buildings through addressing technical and financial barriers. This includes things like building stock performance (energy consumption, envelope performance, energy sources) and building stock inventories reflecting floor area, construction year, ownership profiles as well as national policies and regulation.

This could be of interest to people concerned with climate change and construction. I know there is a team in Vancouver and British Columbia that might find this data interesting, if only for benchmarking.

Global

Few people realize just how global Open Data is… here is a small sampling of some of the locations and how organized they are:

Getting it Done in Ghana

If you want to see what a tightly organized Open Data looks like, check out the agenda in Accra, Ghana.

Thinking about Poverty in the Philippines

There are a bunch of cool things happening in Manilla on Open Data Day but I love that one of them is focused on anti-poverty and the engagement with local NGOs:

“National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) Open Data initiative (http://maps.napc.gov.ph). We welcome suggestions and comments to further improve our work.”

I know in Vancouver I’ll be talking to people about homelessness (a big priority here) and hope we’ll get some non-profits in the sector looking participating as well – particularly given the recent release of the city’s Rental Standards batabase (which lists outstanding infractions).

Lots of Community in Kathmandu

In Kathmandu they got stalls for a number of organizations related to open data, the open web and development such asOpen DRI, Open Data Nepal, IATI, Mozilla & Wikimedia, the OGP (LIG) and others. I also love that they are doing a course on how to edit a wiki. The focus on education is something we see everywhere… People come to Open Data Day to above all else, learn. 

School of Data in Amsterdam

Speaking of learning, one thing we’ve tried hard to emphasize is that Open Data day is not just for hackers. It is for anyone interested in community, learning and data. One group that has epitomized that has been the team in Amsterdam who are running a number of workshops, including some pretty wonkish ones such as exploring tax evasion working on the Open Data Census.

Building Community in Edinburgh (and every where)

I love how Edinburgh is focusing on getting people to talk about data, problems and code that can help one another. In many open data day events this is typical – as much time is spent learning, understanding and talking about how we can (and should or shouldn’t) use data to help with local problems. People are trying to figure out what this tool – open data – is and is not helpful for… all while connecting people in the community. Awesomeness.

Google Translate Required

And man, I don’t know what is going happening in Taipei (first open data event in Taiwan!!) but they have two tracks going on, so it has got to be serious! And it is hard to believe that in the first two years there were no events in Japan and this year there will be at least five. Something is happening there.

It makes me doubly happy when I see events where the wiki and comments are all in the local language – it reminds me of how locally driven the event is.

Hacking Open Data and Education – Open Science coutse

Billy Meinke of Creative Commons has posted that in Mountainview, “the Science Program at Creative Commons is teaming up with the Open Knowledge Foundation and members of the Open Science Community to facilitate the building of an open online course, an Introduction to Open Science.”

Participation in this event IS NOT LIMITED TO MOUNTAINVIEW. So check out their website if you want to participate.

Exciting.

Code Across America

If you live in the US and you don’t see an event in your community (or even if you do) also know that Code for America is running Code Across America that weekend. We love Code for America and they love open data, so I hope there is some cross pollination at some of these sites!

And much, much more…

This is just a small part of what will be happening. I’m going to be blogging some more on open data day.

I hope you’ll come participate!

International Open Data Day Feb 23rd: Vancouver Edition

So International Open Data is rapidly approaching! All around the world people are organizing local events to bring together developers, designers, policy wonks, non-profits, government officials, journalists, everyday citizens and others to play, chart, analyze, educate and/or build apps with open data.

For those of us who started International Open Data Day, it was never designed to be just a hackathon. Rather we’ve always wanted it to be an event that anyone interested in data, and interested in open data about their community in particular, could come to. So if you live in Vancouver and that is you… please sign up here. If you live somewhere else, check out the wiki as there are events happening all around the world.

So what do we have planned in Vancouver? And what will be some fun projects to work on?

Open Data Dating!

Well, this year, generously, the event will be taking place at City Hall and we are expecting some staff to be on hand. Following the lead from the excellent organizers in Ottawa were going to run some open data dating. Specifically, we’ll have city staff share with us what is some of the data they have, how they are using it, and answer questions participants may have. These conversations often spark ideas on behalf of both staff and participants about useful analysis or apps that could be created, or important data that should be collected.

Budget Visualization

Stéphane Guidoin from Montreal is trying to get people at Open Data Events across Canada (and possibly around the world) to input their city’s budget data into Where Does My Money Go so we can toy with creating some visualizations of city budgets. Not sure yet that we can get the budget data, but think it could be scrapped – but am nonetheless hopeful.

Homelessness and Rental Properties

One of the big priorities of city government is homelessness. The city is gearing up to launch a database of infractions affecting rental properties. Councillor Reimer – who is been a strong supporter of open data and addressing homelessness – will be on hand and has several ideas about how this data could be used to help the city, and residents, better understand the nature of some of the challenges around housing and foster support for more and better housing.

Air Quality Egg Hacking

My colleagues at the Centre for Digital Media at the Great Northern Way Campus have recently procured an Air Quality Egg and are hoping to explore how they can hack this hardware. We been dreaming up a scenario where we deploy may 10-30 of these around the lower mainland to get realtime measurements of the air quality. For the Centre for Digital Media, we’d love it if we can create a dashboard for the measurements from these eggs, as it would enable residents to compare air quality from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Biking Apps

Since I’m now just throwing ideas out there… (Cause that is what happens on open data day), another idea Councillor Reimer shared involves the newly released bike rack data from the City of Vancouver (which this fine gentleman mapped in very short order). An app that does nothing more than load, locate you, and point you to the direction of the nearest bike rack could be helpful to bikers. But if the location of the user could be anonymously shared with the city… it would be hugely valuable to them as it would provide some insight about where people are when they are looking for bike racks. This could allow the city to deploy its bike rack infrastructure more efficiently and save on (re)installation/moving costs.

And lots, lots more…

Obviously, there is lots more that happens, people network, brainstorm projects of their own, join established projects… or just learn about what is possible. Hopefully these ideas give you some insight into what is possible. That said, if you think you don’t have the right skills, please come anyways… we’ll find you a way to participate.

Presently the City of Montreal just tipped over 100 participants for their open data day. Ottawa regularly has similar participation levels. I confess that I’ve been a little slow in getting the word out, so please do consider coming and… pass the word along!

 

Again, one can sign up here.

The event will be taking place at City Hall on February 23rd, from 9:30am until 5:30pm.